Talking Policy: Salwa El Gantri on Transitional Justice in Tunisia

The Arab Spring was only the beginning of Tunisia’s reform process. Following the revolution, the country has made strides in advancing economic and social justice at an institutional level, but the transitional justice process has not been without challenges. World Policy Journal speaks with Salwa El Gantri, the head of the International Center for Transitional Justice’s office in Tunisia and an expert on gender and transitional justice, about proposed legislation that could threaten recent progress and the future of the country’s democratic transition.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: First, could you give a brief overview of the post-Arab Spring political and social landscape in Tunisia?

SALWA EL GANTRI: Tunisia witnessed a wide range of policies and reforms in the framework of the democratic transition. This included freedom of expression, elections, and mainly transitional justice. Of course, only six years after the revolution there are still ups and downs, which is natural for a country that lived practically 60 years under a dictatorship. We cannot expect democracy to come right after the revolution, but what has been achieved so far has established a cornerstone for the new system to be built. We should still insist on implementation; we should still work on enacting better legislation and enforcing a greater respect for rights. But Tunisia is currently in a much better position than many other countries in the region after the Arab Spring.

WPJ: Following the Arab Spring, what were some of the key issues that politicians and civil society sought to address in a transitional justice process?

SEG: The transitional justice process is a very important mechanism to address the legacy of the past. When reading the transitional justice law, you can clearly see the philosophy and the spirit that led the process. Institutional reform and the enforcement of economic and social rights were central to this process because for decades we had corrupt institutions, which were the basis for the absence of social justice. Additionally, we see truth-seeking as a strong mechanism to reflect on what happened in order to put in place strong guarantees of non-repetition [measures to prevent past crimes and rights violations from recurring].

WPJ: What progress has been made in Tunisia toward transitional justice, at both the government and civilian levels?

SEG: At the government level, the first phase was leading a national dialogue on transitional justice in 2012. Then came the propagation of the transitional justice law in 2013. Plus, the Truth Commission was established in 2014, it became operational despite difficulties related to its implementation.

For civil society, I would stress the role of victims’ associations throughout the process, from 2011 to now. Their planning and active participation in the national dialogue on transitional justice, advocating for the propagation of the transitional justice law, catalyzed the appearance of transitional justice and justice from the global perspective. Civil society and victims’ associations were the main actors that helped bring transitional justice into the discussion at that time in the democratic transition.

Civil society and victims’ associations also engaged with the Truth Commission, especially during the stage of collecting files to work on—one of the gaps in our transitional justice system is communication. For example, in March 2015, the Truth Commission announced that it only received 5 percent of all files expected to come from women, so civil society and victims’ associations worked very actively to raise this to 23 percent by the deadline of June 15, 2016.

WPJ: Could you discuss some of the controversy surrounding Tunisia’s National Reconciliation Law? What does the law propose, and why has it sparked opposition?

SEG: Since the Draft Law on Economic Reconciliation appeared, it has mainly been civil society that has advocated in the strongest way to defeat the legislation, which is aimed at defending corrupt businessmen and high officials. Essentially, the legislation is an amnesty bill to protect these individuals.

At the same time, we have a transitional justice law that includes institutional reform. If the state seeks to pass new legislation or create a new body dealing with this part of the process, then the new law or entity should exist within the minimum guarantees of the current transitional justice law. This, however, is not the case with the Draft Law on Economic Reconciliation.

Within this framework, it was primarily civil society that advocated overturning this legislation. In 2015, in 2016, and even today in 2017 there has been opposition to passing this text, despite the fact that Parliament is continuing with its discussion and the draft law now exclusively addresses high officials. Civil society also drove attention to the fact that this revolution is meant to advocate for respect of economic and social rights—and against corruption. Today’s draft law is against the spirit of the revolution and against transitional justice.

WPJ: What effect could implementation of the National Reconciliation Law have on transitional justice moving forward? For instance, could it undermine the achievements of the Truth and Dignity Commission?

SEG: If the new legislation adopts an arbitration mechanism, this should fit with the process the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) has already conducted.

Now it’s looking like this legislation would mainly target the high officials, which won’t cross over with the work of the TDC, but it goes against the minimum guaranteed in an existing organic law (the transitional justice law). Here, we can talk about the harmony that the legislative and the executive should seek in drafting the text.

The text shows there is no real intention to have institutional reform done in a healthy way. It is instead tailor-made for a certain category of officials. If you go back to Article 14 of the transitional justice law, you will see that previous institutional reform aims to dismantle the corruption system—a process this new legislation would hinder.

There would not only be a concentration of power among the elite, but also a lack of accountability under the draft law. It is against the right to know the truth. For instance, we don’t see any indication that the report from this new commission would be made available to the public. The law is against accountability in the sense that it also undermines the right for all citizens to be equal before the law. It establishes amnesty for a certain category, while the other category faces a steep struggle with law enforcement. It also opposes any healthy implementation of institutional reform, as there seems to be no intention to have institutions work correctly within the framework of rule of law. So, as a whole, it does not meet the minimum standards guaranteed by the transitional justice law.

WPJ: What efforts is ICTJ making in order to prevent the next steps in the implementation of the draft law?

SEG: ICTJ is actively advocating against the text, along with civil society peers. We also contacted parliamentarians to explain why this text should not pass. We conducted thorough investigations to see whether or not this kind of legislation would enhance the economy, but concluded that it would simply hamper all the anti-corruption mechanisms established by the state.

WPJ: To what extent are historically underrepresented groups included in Tunisia’s transitional justice efforts?

SEG: The women’s committee was not included in the transitional law, but rather in the bylaws of the TDC to ensure that women are taken into consideration. ICTJ works closely with the TDC on this issue, and we advocated for the creation of this women’s committee.

ICTJ has worked with women in the country extensively since 2011. When it was announced that the submission rate to the TDC was only 5 percent among women, we tried to evaluate why this was the case despite all the work done by civil society, victims’ groups, and others across the country. We found that poor communication about the role of the Truth Commission had a decisive role, such as the lack of information about what the Truth Commission could offer when a woman decides to come forward, as well as measures to ensure confidentiality. Another factor was the lack of recognition of the woman as direct victims. All this led to a mere 5 percent of female submissions. We, as ICTJ, helped create a network of 11 active women’s organizations, and we directly reached out to women victims to explain what the process of submitting to the Truth Commission entailed.

As part of these efforts, we had the opportunity to establish a cartography of violations targeting women in Tunisia. We and other members of our network started thinking about how to better invest in this system. Our best strategy was to compile a collective file to be submitted to the Truth Commission addressing the systematic and continuous violations against women in Tunisia.

First, we thought about sexual violence as a form of torture. But, unfortunately, there were not enough women who were willing to come forward. In a conservative society it is generally very difficult to have women speak about this issue. Next, we thought about the importance of divorce; in Tunisia prior to the revolution, political opponents would be forced by the regime to divorce their spouses. But here, too, there were not enough filings that would effectively exhibit this as a continuous and systemic violation. We also discussed what is known as Circular 108, which is a legal circular enacted in 1981 under [President Habib Ben Ali] Bourguiba that prohibits veiled women’s access to employment and education. On this basis, generations of Tunisian women and girls were prohibited from pursing education or having the right to employment. For example, one woman engineer who is part of our network got her diploma when she was 26, but was only allowed to work as an engineer after the revolution, when she was 54. We tried to stress the fact that beyond being veiled or not, this is a real human rights violation. We also stressed that these violations were based on economic and social rights, because in every context, when we start talking about women, people only think about the sexual violations. But beyond sexual violations, if you take the perspective of economic and social rights you see a wide range of violations that could result in a huge loss of opportunities for women. So, we submitted this collective file, and it proved powerful in shedding light on how speaking about women does not automatically mean speaking about sexual violations. In March 2017, the TDC dedicated part of its hearings to this collective file, and one of the victims whose file was a part of it testified in a public hearing.

WPJ: What is the outlook for transitional justice in Tunisia in 2017 versus 2011? What’s next for moving the process forward?

SEG: In 2011, we were in the period of revolutionary euphoria. At the time, we felt that everything was possible. We could just dream anything and make it happen concretely. Now, with economic and social difficulties, two political assassinations, change in the regime after the legislative and presidential elections of 2014, and the shift from a transitional justice-friendly environment to a transitional justice-hostile environment, things are not the same. Also, the fact that we are six years past the revolution means that the victims are not as patient as before. But we can still say that we are very much looking forward to the TDC’s final report to shed light on what happened before 2011, how to establish non-recurrence guarantees, and to ultimately ensure a solid democratic transition and healthy reconciliation.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Madeline de Figueiredo]

[Photo courtesy of Salwa El Gantri]

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